Let’s talk Characters
There are many elements that play essential roles in a story. Plot, setting, themes, conflict, blah blah blah.
Let’s talk characters. Writing rich and developed characters is important. VERY. In my (admittedly limited) experience, I’ve noticed that the more developed they are the easier they are to write. They shape the story in a big way.
To me, characters are what make a story a memorable favorite.
“Do you remember that book with the fantastic park setting? It was at night and raining just slightly adding to the chill in the air,” said no one ever.
“Do you remember the book where that boy, the baker’s son, recalls when he first saw the heroine? He perfectly remembers the song she sang on the first day of class. Isn’t that sweet?” Much more realistic.
So you’re probably thinking, “Hey that’s The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins” and you’d be right. And if you haven’t read it yet or seen the movie, this has some spoilers and you might want to look away.
Peeta was sweet and sensitive. He was physically strong but his survival instincts kinda sucked. He knew Katniss had a better chance of making it out alive and he says he knows he will die in the arena. Without Katniss going back for him, maybe he would have. Though the argument could be made that he scored sponsors with his “lovers from District 12” scheme and those sponsors sent needed medicine in the first place, but… I digress. My point is you remember Peeta. Heck, you might even love Peeta. He’s pretty loveable. Why? Because he’s a great character.
Dystopian Panem, the corrupt Capital, the arena itself are all epic. Just amazing settings that are engrossing and pull you in easily. But what would a setting be, even an awesome one, without characters to populate it and give it meaning?
We root for Katniss because she’s brave and noble. She’s there to save her sister. We sigh over Peeta and his reluctant admissions of love.
But if you take a step back, he could be a hard character to like. Wait! Wait! Don’t hate me yet. I’m not saying we don’t like him – we do. But in a world where people are largely starving, here is the well fed son of a baker. He’ll never have to risk his life in the mines like the less fortunate men. He won’t go to bed hungry and watch his future children waste away. Of course his name still goes into the lottery for The Hunger Games like everyone else’s but this is what throws our characters together.
The point is these are rich characters. It’s what makes them real. It makes them likeable, loveable or loathsome. Haven’t you ever read a book and so wanted the villain to get their comeuppance? Cheered when the Hero/Heroine won? That’s because the writer is badass and made those characters so good you couldn’t help but get emotionally involved in the story and root for them.
I say the writer is badass because it’s not always an easy thing to do. I’ve read old manuscripts and thought, “No. Something is missing.” I’ve agonized over it. What is flat here? My plot is good. It moves. There’s action. There’s romance. It’s exciting. Why does something feel off? Check your characters.
Odds are you’ll give your character a full back story and most of it will never make it into the manuscript. Don’t put it all in there either. PLEASE. DON’T. Think of your characters history like black pepper. Sprinkle it as you go, taste it every now and then, and sprinkle more as needed.
Think of your characters personality like ketchup. I know people that list ketchup as their favorite veggie. They put it on everything. Personality is largely shaped by backstory – yes, but they are different. Personality will affect how they speak, moods, gestures, habits maybe. This is the good stuff! Put it on everything.
No one gives a crap what your characters favorite color is. Unless it’s integral to the plot, skip it. Favorite food? Snoozefest.
Let’s say for example, my personality was antisocial elitist bitch. Hypothetically. Roll with me here. That’s going to make me less inclined to speak with others. When I do, my remarks would be snide. My gestures would surely include lifting my nose in the air and staring down at the plebeians below me. Can you almost hear the sound of my voice? It would be pitched just so. My “Holier-Than-Thou” attitude would demand me to be well spoken and articulate. When I put you down, you’ll hear my voice loud and clear, holding you in your place like a foot on your throat. What kind of things would I say? “Stop writing about your characters favorite color, child. You’re boring me to tears,” I sneered under a cruel smile. What hobbies would an elitist bitch have? Do I spend a lot of time at the spa? Do I have a lot of money? I would drink only the finest liquor I could afford and scoff at your well drinks. Do I have an alcohol problem? I’m an alcoholic who refuses to admit there’s a problem and pushes those around me away with my bad attitude.
That character is easy to write and by the end she’s writing herself. I can hear her acidic words; I can see the gin blossoms on her cheeks, and the sadness in her eyes that she longs for her former life of elitist wealth and privilege.
Let’s try another.
I’m an introvert who lives vicariously through books. We’re just pretending. Roll with me, here. I’m afraid of most things, everything maybe. Social rejection would be the worst form of torture. That leads to no public speaking, probably a lot of nights in. I never go out, in fact. My perfect world would be me on an island with lots of books (Okay, maybe that part really is me but back to the character…) That lack of public interaction would probably mean I’m socially inexperienced, probably romantically inexperienced as well. For continuity’s sake, let’s say I also own a lot of cats.
Now I’m a cat lady with several crippling phobias who is still a virgin. How would my voice sound? Can you hear the timidity? Do I speak in hushed, almost inaudible tones or do I stutter? Is my voice more confident only when I speak to my cats? What books do I like best? (You can see how a favorite book would be relevant here, yes?) Since I have little excitement in my life, do I like thrillers? Or do I prefer romances and dreaming of the brave heroes that I will never meet while hiding in my cat filled home? What types of things would I say? “Well,” I squeaked in an unsteady voice, “It’s your book so you should really choose what to include based on your judgment but a favorite color seems a bit silly.”
A well developed character will start to write themselves! I know. They want to help you do your job. Which I think is awesome. At the end of the day, they are the character and you are the writer. You’ve got the mousy, cat loving, introverted virgin and should you decide to throw her into her first romance with say a public speaking teacher who has to help her get over her fear in order for her to keep her communications based job – well that’s up to you. Again, you’re the writer.
But if you listen closely, she might tell you what she’ll say or do. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly look him in the eyes. He’s too handsome and I’m barely managing to breathe,” she’ll remind you when you’re writing their first meeting.
“I’d look him in the eyes,” the elitist bitch interjects. “I’d look him dead in the eyes and stare him down until he and that cheap suit move far away from me.”
Now these characters are already developed enough so their personality can guide your writing and YAY that’s a good thing. They are still pretty basic though. Back to our mousy introvert –
So she’s the phobic, introverted, book loving virgin – okay. That’s great. But let’s give her some flare, let’s make her memorable. Perhaps she can only be brave when she pretends she is one of the characters from a book. Now I’m picturing a woman walking around quoting Elizabeth Bennett and one of her cats is named Mr. Darcy. Maybe, despite her fears, she secretly longs to be brave like the heroines in her books and only needs the right circumstances to seize the opportunity! (*Ahem* You’re the writer. Give her the chance.) Whether she can take advantage of the situation and triumph or is overwhelmed by her fears and fails is up to you.
What if our introvert is beautiful but was constantly told how ugly she was by an abusive mother? What if she’s intimidated by social interaction due to a disability? What if she never watched TV and had no idea about pop culture – how would that affect her? She would lose at the quizzo pub night the hunky teacher talked her into. I bet she’d be mortified about it. Oh, if only the hunky teacher could reassure her that she’s fine just the way she is. You see where I’m going with this, right?
I typically start a manuscript with an idea. A scene. One scene I can see vividly. I go back later and wonder how these characters got to this place and why. What kinds of people would be in that setting doing that action, etc. I build the character a bit backwards I suppose but at some point I do build the character. In turn, the character I’ve built helps me build the rest of the book.
So let’s try it that way. Let’s give our faceless, shapeless character a goal.
If you’re writing a thriller perhaps the goal can be to stop the big bad (corporation, billionaire evil tycoon, rogue hitman or what-have-you). Who would possibly take on such a task? Are they in a team or do they work alone? They’d have to be brave either way. Are they brave because they are trained to be so, or do they perhaps not care if they live or die? What kind of person would have those qualities? What kind of life would they have had to take such risks?
These are decisions you make based on what fits the story you want to tell. But to build our character, let’s say he’s a lone wolf. Perhaps they do have some professional training. Our character is in fact a cop. The big bad they are stopping could be something corrupt inside the police department, which has been done a lot, or it could be outside the department. Let’s say outside. It clearly has to affect our character to get them involved. Perhaps there’s a corrupt politician who has a lot of officers in his pocket. Criminal things are going on. Our hero, noble and moral, cannot take part in such things so he quits. Then again, maybe he enjoyed the criminal dealings because they were lucrative and he got in too deep. Yes, I like that option. Our hero just became the antihero. He has a deep love of money that clouds his once noble aims of holding up the law, but somehow, he got in too deep. Stealing drugs, hiding evidence that incriminates the corrupt politician, that was one thing – but the illegal activities escalate and when a murder takes place, and even our greedy antihero must draw the line.
Bailing out of a sinking ship he’s been in for so long will pit him against friends, coworkers, people he likes and trusts. Oh, the drama! He’ll be seen as a turncoat, a rat. Officers can make his life difficult. He can’t leave the house without being pulled over, ticketed, and harassed. His reputation is ruined. No one would believe any claims he made even if he did go to Internal Affairs. This will all take a toll. He’s weary. His face is whiskered, his cheeks are hollowed. He’s told so many lies to get away with the aforementioned criminal activities that the falsehoods come to him easily. He barely recognizes the truth now. How does he cope? Does he drink? Does he take it out on those close to him? Does this all isolate his wife/oldest friend/etc? Ooh. The oldest friend is also a cop. An honest one. Totally moral. A foil to our anti hero who struggles with understanding what’s happening, how his friend could get involved with this, and what to do about it. Does the friend help or cut ties? Bwahaha!
Back to our guy: The loss of his job means a loss of income which means a change in lifestyle. How is he living? Can he still afford his mortgage/rent? If he’s married that will affect the marriage. Does he have children? Does his wife stay at home with the kids? How is he making money now and how can taking on the corrupt Politician threaten what little income he is currently pulling in? Let’s say he does odd jobs now, a handy man of sorts. A bad reputation could be ruinous. Would you let someone arrested frequently into your home? Probably not. And you know the big bad politician would have our hero’s mug shot in the news every chance he got.
Now he’s struggling to get by and keep his family – a growing one at that! – afloat all while trying to take down the big bad!
How can he possibly overcome this mountain before him and take down the big bad? Will he triumph over the big bad? We hope so but that’s up to you. You’re the writer.
After you have a general idea, you’ll go back and fill in the details and develop him & his specific personality. (Remember, personality is the ketchup! Put it on everything! It will shape his words, his actions, mannerisms, etc.)
He’s this tall with eyes of this color and this type of build. The physical is easy enough. He spent most of his life being well liked; one of the boys, the life of the party, but life stopped being a party when he needed more money. (That’s what led him to get involved with the villain.) He has a dog, a German Sheppard and it has a cutesy adorable name that his young son gave it and the other officers rib him about. He has a mole on his cheek and a knee that acts up when the weather changes from a job related injury. He and his dad used to restore cars together and he’ll pick up a wrench again when he goes to ask the old man for advice. Perhaps he’s never really faced adversity before and his entire life has been turned upside down. Our greedy ex cop with a trick knee and no friends left is facing the biggest test of his life.
How would this character speak? I can almost hear the gruff words, quieted by shame reluctantly slipping from his mouth when he tells his pregnant wife that he’s lost his job. I can see his hooded eyes when the neighbors glance at him while gossiping about his arrest in the news. All his noble ambitions when he joined the force have washed away and left his life in shambles. He hangs his head low. He doesn’t look his father in the eyes. When he’s facing down the big bad, he finally feels that righteousness inside him again. His eyes burn with it. If he has to go down too, he will, but he’ll see this situation righted one way or another.
Fill in his life in, give him personality. Shape him and he’ll help you shape the story.
You can start with the bigger picture and then refine as you go along or begin from a tiny detail and work your way out. I’m often surprised how much a character will shape a story. There is really no right or wrong place to start. Just do it.